Hurricane Sandy Invokes Grave Concern Over Future Storms

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many people were left stunned, perplexed, and are still asking, “Why did this happen?  What should we expect next?”  It is estimated that the costs of Sandy will reach $6 billion, but future storms could cost $20-$70 billion.1 Scientists, environmentalists, and policymakers are considering which policies and regulations will properly address future storms, but there is stark disagreement over the proper approach.  Two popular approaches include greenhouse gas emission reduction laws and long-term land use plans.  The former focuses on mitigating the effects of climate change to decrease the magnitude of hurricanes; the latter emphasizes the need to better prepare cities for intense storms.

Climate change scientists have long been predicting that warming global temperatures and rising sea levels, alleged consequences of increased greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, will lead to more devastating and costly disasters.  They further predict that the annual number of these intense storms will double over the next century.2 Exactly how climate change influenced Sandy is not definitive; the general assumption is that, as global climate change increases water temperatures, “relatively cooler air condenses vapor rising from water below and the heat released from the condensation gives the hurricane the energy that whips up 75-mile-an-hour (or higher) winds.”3

Many environmentalists and scientists insist that the US strictly enforce current policies and implement new ones to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to mitigate these storms.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken a lead in promoting policies and regulations to address climate change.4 For instance, in 2010 the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration adopted regulations to reduce fuel emissions from on-road vehicles.  “By 2025, the proposal calls for vehicle manufacturers to meet a CO2 standard projected to be equivalent to 54.5 miles per gallon on an average fleet-wide basis.”5 The EPA has also worked with the states to implement a Clean Air Act permit program, which requires owners and operators of “large stationary sources of air pollution” to obtain a permit to construct or modify its facility.6

Climate change skeptics are dissatisfied with this first approach to address future storms.  Among others, they believe that cities should instead focus attention on developing long-term land use plans to better prepare for and manage the effects of disasters like Sandy.  In addition, they propose a new flood-insurance program that would incentivize coastal residents to move out of these flood-prone areas.

Advocates of this approach are casting doubt on the ability of infrastructure in northeastern US cities to withstand disasters of Sandy’s magnitude.  Improving infrastructure is a complex task that could take 50-100 years to complete, but supporters insist it’s essential to alleviate damage caused by intense storms.7 In order to develop a master plan, major issues must be addressed.  For instance, should a city build a seawall and levee system to protect from storm surges?  If so, how much should the city spend, how tall should they be, and how strong should they be?  Should these policies be incorporated into the Stafford Act, a federal act that assists states affected by major disasters, or should the states implement their own policies to address these issues?

In addition to these long-term land use plans, flood-insurance programs could help to incentivize coastal residents to move out of flood-prone areas.  In essence, property owners would have to choose between pre-funding their own flood-related property losses and moving inland where the risks aren’t as severe.  In 1968, Congress implemented a National Flood-Insurance Program (NFIP), but it is largely subsidized and rates are very affordable.  Thus, the problem is that “NFIP doesn’t collect enough in flood-insurance premiums to cover payouts” and the fund is exhausted quickly.8 In order to maximize its efficiency, an insurance-program must have higher premiums and fewer subsidies.

Although these two approaches do not conflict with one another, the dispute arises as to where immediate attention should be focused.  Advocates of the first approach face a bigger barrier; they must first convince skeptics that climate change is real.  Those who disbelieve in climate change are the primary proponents of the second approach and feel that the first approach would result in wasted resources.

—-Courtney Mercier is a General Member for MJEAL.  She can be reached at cmerc@umich.edu.

 


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

1Albert Sabate, Sandy:  What’s Climate Change Got to Do Withi It?, ABC NEWS (Oct. 30, 2012), http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/News/hurricane-sandy-climate-change/story?id=17595201#.UJ0RcKVVqfT.

2Id.

3Id.

4See Hearings on EPA Regulation of Greehouse Gases, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (June 29, 2012), http://www.epa.gov/ocir/hearings/pdf/2012_GHG_testimony_final.pdf.

5Id. at 6.

6Id. at 9.

7Lauren Morello, Scientists See Extent of Storm’s Damage Linked to Climate Change, Greenwire (Oct. 31, 2012), http://libproxy.law.umich.edu:2217/Greenwire/climate_digest/2012/10/31/2

8Sandy Slaps Uncle Sam’s Handouts, The Wash. Times, Nov. 6, 2012, available at http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/nov/6/sandy-slaps-uncle-sams-handouts/.